GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
Radamisto, opera in three acts
About the Composer
In early days of the internet, an essay made the rounds recounting
misremembered history from the test papers of grade-school
students. "Handel," wrote one young respondent, "was half German,
half Italian, and half English. He was very large." Despite the
dubious math, it was a pretty fair assessment of the composer's
brilliant career. Unfortunate reference to his girth
notwithstanding, it also accurately depicts his presence in
England's musical life.
Born in Halle to a provincial Saxon family, Handel would grow up to
become the canniest and most cosmopolitan of composers. By the time
he discovered England in 1710, he had already held positions as a
local church organist and theater musician, and had extensively
toured Italy (at the invitation of a Medici), engaging with opera's
most current practices and practitioners. It was a formidable
background for a composer about to encounter a growing taste for
Italian opera among London's nobility.
Having savored success with Rinaldo (1711), his first
opera written expressly for English audiences, Handel grew less
content with his recent court position and looked to extend his
London presence. (His employer, in effect, soon followed: Through
imperial politics, Elector Georg of Hanover became King George I of
England.) But it was not merely the lure of fame; Handel saw the
need to keep constant tabs on fickle English audiences.
A veteran of Hamburg's commercial Theater am Gänsemarkt, Handel
became a master of creating his own opportunities, and within 15
years he would have a hand in launching three opera companies in
London. By the 1730s, however, English audiences had forsaken
Italian opera in favor of more linguistically digestible works.
Once again, the nimble Handel changed direction, and
English-language oratorios—such as Israel in
Egypt (1739) and Messiah (1742)—would
ensure his fame long after his early operas had fallen out of
About the Work
Besides being one of Handel's more musically substantial stage
works, Radamisto stands as a prime example of a
pragmatic composer taking matters of production into his own hands.
His first new opera in five years—and the first serious rival to
his early success with Rinaldo—the piece was Handel's
contribution for the new Royal Academy of Music, a
subscription-based opera company founded in 1719 by members of the
London aristocracy. Radamisto saw its initial
premiere in the spring of 1720 at King's Theatre, Haymarket, the
prime venue for Italian opera in London at that time.
The opera's libretto, attributed to Nicola Francesco Haym, was an
adaptation of Domenico Lalli's Florentine play L'amour
tiranico, itself an adaptation of Georges de Scudéry's
Parisian tragicomedy L'amour tyrannique, which was loosely
based on Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome. Traditionally,
an opera's dedication was a privilege of the librettist, but given
the text's dubious lineage, Handel reserved that right for himself.
Whether to soothe any residual resentment over his delinquency in
Hanover—or out of sincere admiration for his one-time patron and
current Sovereign—Handel dedicated Radamisto to George I,
acknowledging the king's encouragement "not so much as it is the
Judgment of a Great Monarch, as of one of a most refined Taste in
That Handel later chose to revise Radamisto so heavily
that same year hardly reflects on its initial reception—the
original production ran for a respectable 10 performances—but
rather indicates the opportunities that presented themselves for
the Academy's second season. Given that the original showed such a
marked advance in musical structure and dramatic conception over
the usual operatic fare—often cobbled from several sources, giving
singers clear preference over composers—it bears mentioning that
Handel would rework so much of his material when more desirable
singers became available.
Handel had been charged by the Academy to recruit the best singers
available on the continent, and went on to secure commitments not
only from castrato Francesco Bernardi (the famous "Senesino," who
went on to premiere many of Handel's operas, including the title
roles in Orlando and Giulio Cesare), but
also soprano Margherita Durastanti and bass Giuseppe Maria
The revised Radamisto that premiered in December
1720 differed considerably from what audiences had seen the
previous April. Eight arias had been removed and 10 new ones added,
mostly featuring Senesino in the title role. Much of the remaining
music was altered to fit the new voice types: Besides Radamisto
being changed from soprano to alto castrato, Zenobia had changed
from alto to soprano, and Tiridate from tenor to bass. Another
notable change in the later version was the addition of the quartet
"O ceder o perir" ("Assign or perish") at the end of Act III.
Three of the arias that had been cut had been written for Fraarte,
a mere foot soldier in the original libretto whose status was
augmented in Handel's setting to accommodate the singer premiering
the role. With the initial cast change, Fraarte's arias expressing
his love for Zenobia wound up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.
For two further revivals—first in November 1721 and again
in1728—the role of Fraarte was cut altogether.
The action takes place in and around Thrace, in Asia Minor, "in the
12th year of Claudius, the 53rd year of our Savior."
Tiridate, king of the neighboring state of Armenia, has become
consumed with lust for Zenobia, the wife of Radamisto, who is the
son of Farasmane, king of Thrace. Tiridate has invaded Thrace to
abduct Zenobia, but has hid his intentions. Farasmane has been
captured, and Tiridate is now laying siege to the city where
Radamisto and Zenobia are encamped.
Act I. Polissena, Tiridate's loyal wife, prays in despair at her
husband's neglect. Tiridate's ally Tigrane, who is in love with
Polissena, urges her to leave him, but without success. Tiridate
orders that Radamisto be killed and the city destroyed. Polissena
pleads for mercy towards Radamisto, but Tiridate dismisses her.
Farasmane—now in chains—asks to speak to his son, and Tiridate
agrees to a meeting between the two. Radamisto then learns that
unless he surrenders the city, his father will be executed and the
city stormed mercilessly. Farasmane urges him to resist. When
Radamisto hesitates, Zenobia fears that he will surrender her to
Tiridate, and begs him to kill her instead to end the conflict.
Tigrane then successfully captures the city. Tiridate reluctantly
agrees that Farasmane may live if Radamisto and Zenobia are brought
Act II. Radamisto and Zenobia have escaped through an underground
passageway and emerge on a riverbank. Enemy soldiers soon appear,
and a despairing Zenobia begs her husband to kill her lest she fall
into Tiridate's hands. When Radamisto's half-hearted stabbing
fails, Zenobia tries to jump into the river. Enemy soldiers led by
Tigrane capture Radamisto and rescue Zenobia. Tigrane, offering to
help Radamisto, takes him to Polissena. Radamisto, disguised as a
soldier, asks Polissena to take him to Tiridate, vowing to kill him
and thereby avenge Zenobia's honor, but she refuses. Tiridate
continues to pursue Zenobia, but is interrupted by Tigrane, who
announces that Radamisto is dead. Tigrane shows her Radamisto's
torn garments and calls in a messenger to describe his death. The
messenger (actually Radamisto in disguise) gives an account of
Radamisto's final words, proclaiming his love for Zenobia and
urging her to continue resisting Tiridate. Recognizing Radamisto's
voice, Zenobia vows to do so. Tiridate tries to enlist the
"messenger" to help him win over Zenobia, then leaves the two alone
for a joyful but covert reunion.
Act III. Now repelled by Tiridate's tyranny, Tigrane conspires to
bring him to reason. Tiridate greets Zenobia as the queen of Thrace
and Armenia, but she persists in rejecting him. When he tries to
force himself on her, Radamisto bursts in, armed with a sword.
Polissena intervenes to keep Radamisto from killing Tiridate, but
meanwhile Farasmane accidentally reveals Radamisto's identity.
Tiridate orders Radamisto's execution, which Polissena protests.
Zenobia is determined to die with her husband, but Tiridate offers
her a choice: Either become his wife or see her husband beheaded.
In the temple, the executions are about to take place when
Polissena finally defies her despot husband. She announces that
Tigrane has led the army into revolt and is now surrounding them.
Radamisto asks Polissena to pardon Tiridate, which she does, much
to her husband's surprise. Tiridate returns to the throne of
Armenia, which he promises to rule with mercy. Farasmane is
restored as ruler of Thrace, while Radamisto and Zenobia celebrate
their happy reunion.